Vape pen manufacturers are constantly coming up with new ways to try and entice potential customers, using everything from flavorful terpenes to mood-specific highs to draw people in. A couple years ago, when the erotic website Suicide Girls launched Zero, a specialty cartridge, it got a lot of attention — even for a marijuana vape marketed by tattooed girls in bikinis.
Why was this cartridge so special? It was rich in tetrahydrocannabivarin, or THCV. Found in small amounts in some cannabis strains, THCV is thought to be involved in regulating satiety levels by determining how “rewarding” food is. Brands like Doug’s Varin and Flow Kana are capitalizing on consumer demand with the recent launch of products high in THCV, which is also thought to provide a “stimulating” high. Weed has generally been thought to increase appetite — but this could do just the opposite.
“The folks that I’ve talked to that have had experience with our products are pretty universally impressed,” says Paul Daley, chief science officer at California Cannabinoids, the brand behind Doug’s Varin. “We are getting reports of weight loss that are sustained.”
THCV has a wide range of potential health benefits, from its ability to help with Parkinson’s to its potential as a bone growth stimulating agent. But how does THCV work, and what other therapeutic effects are waiting to be discovered beneath the surface?
How do cannabinoids work?
Before diving into THCV, it’s best to understand what, exactly, the Endocannabinoid System really is.
“The purpose of the ECS is to create homeostasis, or balance, in the body,” says Dr. Patricia Frye, chief medical officer at HelloMD, a digital healthcare platform devoted to the cannabis industry. “It makes us eat, sleep, regulates mood, memory, balance, glucose and fat metabolism, it modulates our immune system — just about every neurotransmitter system in the body is regulated by the ECS.”
Two of the main players involved in the ECS are the CB1 and CB2 receptors. These receptors regulate homeostasis by allowing other compounds to bind to them. CB1 receptors are found in the central nervous system (CNS) and are thought to play a role in regulating perception, movement and memory. CB2 receptors are found in immune cells and are associated with regulating pain and inflammation.
Scientists quickly discovered these receptors were responsible for a wide range of functions including mood, pain sensation, memory processing and sleep. When THC — the cannabinoid that most often gets you high — binds to them, that’s when people experience being stoned.
When did people first start looking into THCV?
In 2004, a paper published by the International Association for Cannabis as Medicine threw THCV into the weight loss arena. They noted that pure THCV had “anorexic properties” comparable to the synthetic cannabinoid AM251, and is even effective at “very low doses.”
In 2006, the French pharmaceutical company Sanofi developed the drug rimonabant, which they were hoping to sell as an anti-obesity drug. Rimonabant functioned as a CB1 antagonist, binding to CB1 receptors and blocking further activity at the site.
A paper published a year later found that Rimonabant successfully reduced weight in overweight or obese patients. This raised the possibility that THCV, like other compounds that interfere with binding at the CB1 receptor site, may
“suppress feeding and body weight” in animals and man according to another paper published in 2008. The drug was ultimately discontinued in Europe due to adverse psychological effects. The FDA voted against its approval so it never even made it to the American market.
THCV is of interest when it comes to weight loss because it acts in a similar manner to Rimonabant. It’s the only known cannabinoid that also acts as an antagonist at the CB1 receptor site. By binding to these receptors, THCV could “block the CB1 receptor’s ability to stimulate the appetite,” says Dr. Frye.
Where is the research now?
Some research has noted that THCV antagonizes [prevents further binding at] the CB1 receptors at low doses (5-7.5 mg), “resulting in an inhibition of appetite”. However at larger doses (10-20 mg), THCV behaves as an agonist instead, binding to the CB2 site and activating it to produce an effect. This activation at the CB2 site revealed THCV helped regulate blood sugar levels and reduced the body’s resistance to insulin.
A paper published in 2016 commented on the promise of this finding, stating that, “a combined activation of CB2 receptors and blockade of CB1 receptors might ameliorate several disorders.” The same paper also found that THCV reduced the body’s appetite for sweet taste, adding that THCV “shares the ability of synthetic CB1 antagonists to reduce food intake and body weight gain in mice.”
So what can THCV do?
We think that it can prevent people from overeating — for example, THCV has been shown to reduce the time that ‘non-obese’ mice spend close to a food hopper. We also think that ingesting THCV produces an increase in energy, though these effects are short-lived.
THCV can also potentially treat diabetes. Its activation at the CB2 receptor site decreases inflammation and oxidative stress on the body, two key elements involved in the development of the disease. The evidence suggests THCV and other cannabinoids “may represent a promising new avenue” when it comes to treating diabetes. More research is ultimately needed as studies which have attempted to explore the link between cannabis and diabetes prevention have been inconclusive so far.
A new research paper published in this year’s British Journal of Pharmacology also discovered administering THCV reduced nicotine cravings and use in rodents. Daley, the California Cannabinoids executive, says that the paper’s authors were surprised to discover THCV reduced nicotine-seeking behavior in mice. When asked as to link this finding to weight management he proposed a theory suggesting, “habituating behaviors [may be] locked into your dopamine system like overeating or gambling.”
So, is THCV extract going to be the hot new thing?
The final caveat in the long and complicated puzzle is that THCV is only one of many compounds interacting in the endocannabinoid system — and until we know more about how they work together, simply extracting them probably won’t amount to much.
“People make a big mistake in thinking they can mimic the efficacy of the plant by manipulating cannabinoids and terpenes,” says Frye. “There are a lot of other chemicals in the plant and they tend to work better together – that’s the entourage effect. There are flavonoids and other compounds that we don’t even know are there, let alone how they interact or influence the ones we do know about.”
When it comes down to it, there’s just a lot more to study — and a lot more to learn. “Everything in the plant seems to work better when they’re together,” says Dr. Frye. “After all, nature has been working on this plant a lot longer than we have.”